A Real Possession

In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anis, we find a story about a man named Abba Hilkiah, a rabbinic sage who lived during the first century C.E. He was the grandson of another sage, Honi, the Circle Maker, famous for his ability to bring rain when needed. In the Land of Israel, this was a highly prized gift. It seems that the grandson, like the grandfather, possessed the same ability. Once, during a drought, two scholars visited Abba Hilkiah to ask for his help in bringing rain.

The visitors found Abba Hilkiah working in a field, hoeing. They greeted him, but he ignored them. The scholars didn’t leave, however, and in the evening followed him home. During the time they were with him, the visitors observed several strange behaviors. When given the opportunity, they asked the sage to explain these oddities, which had confused them. 

One of the questions they asked Abba Hilkiah was why he had not responded to their greeting when they first found him in the field. He answered: “I was working as a hired man for the day, and felt I had no right to take any time out.” (Sefer Ha-Aggadah, Bialik and Ravnitzky, translated by William G. Braude). He had sold that time to his employer and felt it was not right to use the time for another purpose. I find this admirable! Abba Hilkiah was a scholar, yet, it seems, that wasn’t how he made his living, or, at least, not the only way he made his living. For that, it was necessary for him to work at what today many would call a “day job.” The story shows how conscientious Abba Hilkiah was in respecting his obligations to his day job.

Every so often, I come across some variation or other of the following: “Do what you love; love what you do.” From most contexts in which I find it used, it appears that the writer referencing the statement wants readers to understand that they should work, that is, earn their living, doing what they love, what they are passionate about. If you are passionate about science, become a scientist, if music, a musician, if writing, an author. But what if you find yourself passionate about chess, yet working in the men’s department of a clothing store?

I believe there may be confusion here that results from understanding the two“whats” in the saying as referring to only one thing—what you love = what you do. Abba Hilkiah was working, hoeing a field. But I think it is safe to say the study of Torah was his passion; we don’t read about him in the Talmud because of his outstanding hoeing ability. And it seems to me that many, if not most, people find themselves working for a living at something that they would not necessarily describe as their “passion.” As is the case with most rules, there are exceptions, of course: Marie Curie, Mozart, Faulkner, van Gogh, just to name a few. An alternative way to understand the saying, however, is to see the “what” in the first clause referring to one thing, and the “what” in the second clause referring to something else. With this understanding, there is no necessary conflict. Let me explain.

Opera Maghiara Est, Cluj-Napoca, Romania. Photo by Val Vesa on Unsplash.

Consider, “Do what you love.” People should always, insofar as it is possible, so it seems to me, do what they love. If, for example, you enjoy chess, by all means, play chess. Do it. Join a club. Compete. Read, study, learn, and master the game to the limit of your ability. That does not mean, however, that you should inevitably aspire to earn your living playing chess. If you do, you may be destined for a hard fall on the sharp rocks of reality. In fact, many times when we do something we love, for money, the passion can turn into a kind of hatred. I once met a great American pianist, internationally famous. I asked how he was doing, how were things going for him. He told me that for many years, he had not been able to play what he wanted to, what he longed to play, but had to play what would sell, what audiences wanted to hear. He had debts, bills to pay, obligations, responsibilities. He hated having to perform only music that would sell. I understand.

So, what about “Love what you do.” This is where I think Abba Hilkiah’s story is helpful. A person should cherish the ability to make a living, love it if you will. If longing to be an accomplished chess player, but working as a clothing store associate in the men’s section of a department store, see the opportunity to work in men’s clothing as a blessing. Your job provides you with income to pay for food, clothing, shelter, to care for your loved ones, to meet your personal, familial, and societal obligations. Strive to be as competent as you can be at your work. Learn about men’s clothes: suits, sport jackets, shirts, ties, belts, shoes, coats, rainwear, formal wear, sportswear, jeans. Dress the part. Remember, it is this day job which allows you the freedom at lunch or at home after work, on the weekend or while on vacation, to do what you love, to play chess, buy chess books, take lessons, attend tournaments, collect beautiful chess sets. Your job skills are a real possession. If you think about them rightly, they add to your happiness.

Several years ago a man named Les Crane, a radio announcer and T.V. talk show host, recorded a piece titled “Desiderata.” The recording won a Best Spoken Word Grammy. “Desiderata” is a poem written by the American poet, writer, and attorney, Max Ehrmann. Note “and attorney.” Ehrmann’s poem has achieved almost legendary status. Many people have taken its words as their life’s guide. Concerning one’s work, Ehrmann writes:

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;

it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Max Ehrmann, Desiderata

Good advice, I believe. If you would like to hear Crane’s recording of “Desiderata,” click here. If you prefer to read the poem without music, a copy of the text is here.

Please don’t take anything I’ve written here as an attempt to discourage you from trying to combine your passion and your day job. However, if you find you can’t do that, know it’s not the end of the world. You may, in time, even see it as a blessing, or, as Max Ehrmann put it, “a real possession.”

All the best!

Photo: Garden tools rack – Dereckson Dereckson (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)

©2019 All Rights Reserved

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

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